Even those who disliked the Championships whispered about it. Hushed and quiet, the disgust in their voices hinted at something they would never admit to having: admiration.
It was inescapable. When the posters went up, and the digital banners flashed across city streets and corners, when the billboards blinded the once dark and lonely mountain paths with blinking images of promos forever on repeat—yes, even when the airships sparkled with the pixelated videos of battles in action—Ouranos was set ablaze with a fever that only the fiercest competition could pacify.
High above the bustling and buzzing of Aspro City, one of those billboards, wider than the wingspan of three Fearows, stood proud and mighty as excited men, women, and Pokémon scurried across the busy streets, babbling about the competition to come.
Passersby knocked Ren back and forth across the sidewalk. Aspro City had a reputation for that sort of thing: a lack of care and concern for others. It was a city on the rise, as the men and women on the news often said. (“Make no mistake, Aspro isn’t just the fastest growing city in the region, it’s the fastest growing city in the world!”) Big-name companies and hotshots from Goldenrod, Castelia, and Lumiose had all found their way to Aspro in recent decades. That constant growth meant a forward momentum, and it seeped into the very beings of the people who inhabited the once modest city. It was either keep up with the pace or get kicked in the face.
Ren was veering on the latter. He fumbled through the bramble of people, trying to keep his eyes on the back of his sister’s head—those long black ponytails that bounced up and down were easy to spot, and she moved with seemingly little effort. She fit in well with the people of Aspro, navigating the crowds with a confident gait, all while her fingers tapped and swiped furiously across the surface of her PokéPad. Plopped over her head, a pale yellow Pichu squeezed the rim of her cap, his black tail wagging back and forth as his head turned to catch a glimpse of Ren and his Vulpix.
Ren cast a glance at the white Vulpix in his arms. Her icy fur felt cool against his chest, perfect for the warm Asproan evening. Her dull blue eyes were fixed on the billboard above their heads. Ren took a second to scan the bold red text:
OURANOS CHAMPIONSHIPS NOW OPEN FOR REGISTRATION
ISO: The Next Ouranos Champion!
[Sponsored by the International Pokémon League in association with the Amity Foundation and Celebi International Corporation]
Vulpix yelped a split-second before Ren’s nose collided with the back of the burly man in front of him. It was too late in that moment. His face squashed against the man’s back, his staunch sweaty scent filling Ren’s nose as he stumbled backward. Vulpix shook her head and a small chill ran through Ren’s heart as he came to himself.
“Watch it!” The man was towering above him now, his face folding into a scowl.
“I-Iwasreadingthebillboardandsorrypleasedon’tkillus…” The words fumbled so quickly out of Ren’s mouth that it must have sounded like gibberish.
“You’ll have to excuse my brother.” Cristal appeared at the man’s side, her eyes still glued to her PokéPad. “It’s his first time in Aspro. Big city, little mind—yeh know?”
“Hey!” Ren shouted.
“Just tell him to watch his step!” said the man.
“Of course,” Cristal replied. She finally looked up from the PokéPad and into the man’s face. Ren saw recognition flash across the man’s eyes as he looked at Cristal properly. The man’s mouth hung agape, his eyes darting back and forth between them both.
“A-Aren’t you two…?” he began.
Ren clenched his teeth. Cristal’s eyes widened.
“We’re actually very late for an appointment,” said Cristal. Her hand reached for Ren’s elbow. She tugged at his sleeve as she shuffled away from the man. Ren didn’t need a second clue. This was their exit. They plunged back into the stream of pedestrians before the man could utter another word.
“Thanks for the save,” Ren said once they were several paces away.
Cristal shrugged. “The people here have short tempers, and we’ve got to look out for each other, right?”
Ren nodded in agreement. “But what was that about a little mind?”
“I also told him it’s your first time in the city, which we both know isn’t true.”
“Look, I think I see it!” She pointed in the distance. The soft sound of flowing water reached Ren’s ears as he followed the path of her finger. They were near Kardia River, which meant…
Yes—there it was! Above the high rises of Aspro’s downtown was the top of the famous Nano Tower. They turned a corner and soon the entirety of the building was in view. Nano Tower had only three corners as opposed to the normal four. Standing at a point beside the wide river, its glassy black surface reflected the lights and colors of the surrounding city.
“I’ll race you there!” Ren jumped into a sprint, Vulpix shouting with joy.
This was it. Nano Tower was home to the Ouranos Pokémon Lab, where top-researcher Professor Seb was awaiting their arrival.
Ren was nearly at the tower’s entrance when he heard Cristal’s footsteps behind him.
“Hey,” Cristal began, catching him by the collar of his shirt. “Ladies first!”
“Forget ladies first, I’m older—by two! whole! minutes!”
“Yes, but when it comes to maturity, I’m leagues ahead.” She pulled him backward and stepped forward through the glass doors.
Ren frowned and outstretched his arm as she passed. His fingers latched onto one of the zippers of Cristal’s backpack. The zipper had been tucked behind the lip of the bag’s opening, but as Ren pulled it out, a keychain emerged at its end, its bright pastel colors glinting in the tower’s entrance lights.
Cristal spun on him, pulling her backpack across her torso, her cheeks flushing red as her eyes met the keychain.
“No!” she shouted, trying to stuff the end of the zipper back inside. But it was too late, Ren had exposed the keychain and the glow on his face held an air of triumph. Painted upon the keychain were three overly-cartoonish Jigglypuffs, each sporting long colorful capes, their bodies bent in action poses.
“Sorry, I didn’t realize carrying a Jigglypuff Girls keychain was a sign of maturity.” Ren and Vulpix opened their mouths in laughter.
“It’s a vintage keychain—a collector’s item!” Cristal hissed. “And for the record, plenty of seventeen-year-olds still watch the Jigglypuff Girls!”
“How did the opening of that show go again?” Ren’s finger tapped his lower lip in mock-thought. “Music. Love. And everything pink. These were the ingredients chosen to create the perfect little Jigglypuff—”
“But Professor Uranium accidentally added an extra ingredient to the concoction—Chemical Pokérus!”
Tingles raced down Ren’s back as he turned to see who had finished reciting the line for him. Walking toward them was a tall woman with frosty blonde, cropped hair, her gray eyes sparkling behind a set of rather smart-looking glasses.
“You must be Ren. I didn’t realize you were a Jigglypuff Girls fan,” said Professor Seb. She fixed the sleeves of her white lab coat before extending her hand toward him.
He shook her hand, warmth filling his face.
“I-I’m… I’m not! I was just… Oh never mind.”
“And you must be Cristal,” Seb said. “It’s good to finally meet you both. Hideo always spoke so highly of you.”
The mention of his father’s name sent a pang of uneasiness through Ren’s chest. From the corner of his eye, he saw Cristal’s grin falter slightly.
“It’s a shame what happened to him,” Seb continued. “I joined the search party myself for a few days, but…” Her voice trailed off and she shook her head. “Anyway, we were expecting you today. You’re here for one thing.”
“The Championships!” Ren and Cristal said in unison.
They walked across the tower’s lobby. A grand atrium cut through the center of all the floors. The dusk sunlight fell through the glass ceiling, casting everything in gradients of deep blues and pale oranges. Footsteps and voices echoed throughout, the excited chatter of scientists, researchers, and tour groups reaching Ren’s ears.
“This place is exciting, isn’t it Vulpix?” said Ren, craning his neck to get a good look at the glass ceiling.
Professor Seb led them to an elevator on the other side of the floor. The elevator doors broke open, revealing a glass panel at its end, offering a glimpse of the street outside.
“After you,” said Seb, ushering Ren and Cristal inside.
They took their places and the doors slid shut. The floor beneath their feet shifted upward and the calm whirring and humming of the ascending elevator engulfed them. Vulpix leaped from Ren’s arms and scurried to the glass to look outside. Ren followed suit. Night was quickly setting over the city and thousands of lights were flickering to life from the surrounding buildings, street lamps, and cars. The river reflected the colors of the nightlife on its surface. The higher they climbed, the more they saw. From behind the tall towers were the dark low-ranging mountains that surrounded the outskirts of Aspro City.
“Nano Tower is one of biggest hubs in all of Aspro,” said Seb, appearing at Ren’s side. “It’s hard to believe this place used to be an old fishing port. The city’s rapid growth has afforded our lab with a massive boost.”
“It’s a lot different from Archi City,” said Ren. “Growing up there, I always thought it was big—but seeing Aspro from all the way up here makes me realize just how small it actually is.”
The elevator came to a halt and the doors broke open. They shuffled onto the floor. The laboratory was an open space with desks spread in clumps at the corners of the floor. Computer screens and holograms buzzed from the surfaces of the desks and researchers tapped eagerly at keyboards and PokéPads. Pokémon scurried across the floor as well, some of them even dressed in lab coats like Professor Seb’s. Ren saw a Pikachu running a stylus across the surface of a PokéPad as though it were taking notes. A Mudkip and Torchic sat on stools, each wearing a pair of sunglasses with tangles of wires connecting them both. A Sylveon walked jauntily from desk to desk, balancing a stack of papers atop her head as a Mr. Mime interacted with a hologram display of what looked to be the anatomy of a Porygon.
“Oh, the Pokémon look so cute in their lab coats!” said Cristal.
“They’re involved in the research just as much as we are,” said Seb. She strolled across the floor toward the center of the room where a raised platform sat. “Now then, we’ll need to register both of you for the Ouranos Championships. I’ll need your PokéPads.”
Ren pulled his from out of his pocket and placed it in Professor Seb’s palm. Cristal did the same. Seb placed the PokéPads on the surface of the platform and their screens lit up with a bright green color.
A robotic male voice chimed from the PokéPads. “Trainers registered!”
“Easy enough,” said Seb, handing back the PokéPads. “I take it these are the Pokémon you’ve chosen to accompany you on your Ouranos journey, then?”
“Is that alright?” Cristal asked, pulling Pichu into her arms.
Seb nodded. “Of course. Trainers are allowed to register one of their already captured Pokémon in the Championship, but the others—”
“Have to be caught after registration,” Ren finished. (“Rude!” Cristal whispered.) “But what about our Ouranos starter Pokémon?”
Seb smiled, pulling her PokéPad from her coat pocket. “And per tradition,” she started, “I can give you each one starter Pokémon native to Ouranos, yes. Have you given thought into which Pokémon you’d like?”
Ren stepped forward, a wide grin spreading across his face. “I know exactly which Pokémon I want! He’ll be the perfect yang to Vulpix’s yin—Psyro!”
Professor Seb tapped her PokéPad and a Poké Ball materialized on the platform. The small icon of a purple flame had been etched over the red surface of the ball, just above the button.
Ren snatched the ball and clicked the button. The ball split open and a white light trickled to the floor, forming the shape of a what looked like a lion cub.
A moment later, Psyro, standing on four legs, stood before Ren and Cristal. The Pokémon had pearly white fur, not unlike Vulpix’s, though his eyes shined blood red. A patch of black fur covered Psyro’s right eye. From the top of his head sprouted a small purple flame that flickered like a strand of hair in the wind. A similar flame swatted back and forth at the end of his long tail.
“The Psychic Fire Lion,” said Seb. “A loyal companion for what’s sure to be a long journey. Good choice.”
Ren bent down and brushed his fingers across Psyro’s cheek. His fur was warm and his red eyes shined with instant admiration. Vulpix scurried toward the new Pokémon and yelped with joy.
“They seem to like each other already,” said Seb.
“Well I know exactly which Pokémon I want too!” said Cristal.
“Oh boy, here we go again,” Ren muttered.
“She’s only the most beautiful, smart, and powerful starter Pokémon in all of Ouranos! I’ll take Bitsnout!”
Ren rolled his eyes. “Bitsnout’s alright, but not great.”
Cristal rounded on him. “Bitsnout is one of the most highly-desired Pokémon! It’s got a beautiful black coat, and a gorgeous sea pearl at its throat. It was named last year’s Most Fashionable Pokémon by Trainer Weekly!”
“It’s true,” said Seb. “The Bitsnout line is one of the biggest cultural icons right now. But—”
“Meryl LeBlanc owns a Bitsnout—he stars in all her movies!”
“She’s in some great movies, but—”
“Bitsnout is constantly trending online, and Bitsnout plush dolls are the hottest items in toy stores!”
“Yes, I have a few myself, although—”
“So Bitsnout is perfect for me and Pichu! Together, us three will be the cutest trio in all of Ouranos!”
“Pipi!” Pichu shouted, jumping excitedly on Cristal’s shoulder.
“I’m sure you and Bitsnout would look adorable together,” said Seb. An awkward grin trembled at the ends of her lips. “The only problem is that I gave away my last Bitsnout this morning.”
Cristal flinched. Her eyes widened in shock.
“B-But—YOU’RE OUT OF BITSNOUTS? But that’s not possible!”
“Well, it’s like you said—they’re high in demand,” teased Ren.
“You’ll be getting more this week, though, right?” Cristal continued.
“We’re not waiting a week for a Bitsnout!” said Ren.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Seb. “We won’t be getting anymore Bitsnouts for months.”
“M-months?” Cristal repeated feebly.
“Pi… chu…” Pichu sighed.
“Bitsnout mating season ended just a handful of months ago. All the eggs have been hatched and given away. It’ll be a while before we get more.”
“So, I’m not going to get a Pokémon?” said Cristal, her voice cracking.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Seb. She tapped her PokéPad and the platform buzzed. “There’s a third option.”
A new Poké Ball materialized on the platform. Like Psyro’s Poké Ball, a tiny icon had been etched on the surface, this one of an orange-red leaf that reminded Ren of fall leaves.
Cristal picked the ball up and pressed the button. The ball opened and a small Pokémon emerged before Cristal. It had a head that looked much too large for its body, and oversized front teeth to match. From its squirrel-ish nose came a thin long leaf, slicked back over its face, running over its forehead and all the way down to the back of its neck. Rounded ears sat on either side of the Pokémon’s head and a small twig grew from its left ear. A wide leaf sprouted from its behind, coiled like a tail.
“What… is this…” Cristal’s words sounded less like a question and more like an expression of disappointment.
“This is Stepleaf, the dancing grass squirrel!” replied Professor Seb, the cheeriness of her voice contrasting sharply against Cristal’s attitude.
“I think this Stepleaf will be a perfect fit for you,” continued Seb. “She has a beautiful auburn coat and this one, in particular, has a penchant for dramatics.”
Ren snickered. Cristal shot him an angry glance.
Pichu jumped from Cristal’s shoulder and ran up to the new Pokémon. He sniffed Stepleaf before looking up at Cristal and nodding in approval.
“Step! Step!” chirped Stepleaf.
Cristal said nothing.
“It’s not that I don’t like her. She’s just… she’s just not my style.”
“Your style?” Ren repeated. His head poked out from the bathroom entrance. They were in a boarding room inside Nano Tower. Hours had already passed since their meeting with Professor Seb, and they were preparing to sleep before starting off on their journey in the morning. Ren popped a chalky cube-shaped mint in his mouth. As soon as the mint touched his tongue, it bubbled into a foamy though coarse toothpaste. He swashed the foam back and forth in his mouth as he spoke. “You don’ real’ habba style.”
“What do you mean I don’t have a style?” Cristal said. She stood from her bed, her eyes pointed into a glare. “My followers would beg to differ!”
Ren shrugged and spit the toothpaste into the sink. “In all seriousness, Pokémon aren’t accessories.”
“I know that!”
“Then what does it matter if Stepleaf isn’t your style? She’s excited to be part of your team; that’s all that matters if you ask me.”
“Well nobody asked you,” she said, pouting. She sighed and pulled Stepleaf’s Poké Ball from out of her backpack. She spun it in her fingers, her eyes tracing the orange leaf inscribed above the button. “I’m not going to be made a fool again…”
Ren walked to her and placed his hand on her shoulder. “That’s all in the past, sis. We’re starting new. We’re finally taking on the Ouranos Championships. Forget what they’re saying about you and me. We’re going to prove them wrong—and I’m willing to bet Stepleaf will have a role in that.”
A noise—a shriek from outside and then a pounding against the door—rang through the air. They stared at the entryway for a few moments.
“Sounded like someone was trying to get inside?” Ren said. He grabbed Vulpix’s Poké Ball and pressed the button. Vulpix appeared at his side. “Let’s check it out.”
Ren pressed his hand to the door and it slid aside. A Flareon slumped into their entryway, its coat disheveled and its tall ears flinching. The hallway lights were off, casting everything in darkness. Ren saw something stir from the other side. A man in a lab coat was slouched on the floor, his hands over his ears.
“Sir?” Cristal asked, stepping over the Flareon and rushing to his side. “Are you okay?”
“What happened?” Ren asked.
“She c-came out of nowhere… ambushed us. I shut off the power to stop her from taking the elevator.”
“Who?” said Cristal.
“I don’t…” His eyes widened. He scrambled to his feet. “We have to stop her!”
Another shriek. The sound of shattering glass echoed from the end of the hallway. They sprinted toward the noise, only to find the elevator’s glass doors in pieces, the whirring of the elevator itself coming from the shaft.
“You stopped the elevator, but she broke in anyway,” said Crystal.
“And she found a way to power it,” said Ren. He poked his head into the empty shaft and looked up. The dark shadow of the elevator compartment rose higher and higher. He faced the man in the lab coat. “Any idea which floor she might be heading toward?”
“Th-The… uh… top floor most likely.”
“That’s a few floors above,” said Ren, turning to Vulpix. “Let’s take the stairs!”
“Ren, just what are you planning on doing, exactly?” Cristal shouted as he reached the stairway.
He was struggling to breathe by the time he reached the top. He leaned against the doorway, his vision dizzy, Cristal’s hurried footsteps echoing below. It took several seconds before he finally recognized his surroundings as the room where Professor Seb had registered them earlier that evening. A bright light shined at the center of the floor. Sitting directly beneath the light was the raised platform where the Poké Balls had appeared.
And standing in front of the platform was a golden-haired girl dressed in all-black.
Ren shot Vulpix a quick glance and brought his finger to his lips to indicate silence. She nodded and they tip-toed into the room.
The girl was muttering something to herself, though her voice was muffled. Ren could only make out a handful of words as he inched closer.
“Just like you said… Mhm… I have it…” She paused and then turned to face Ren. A pair of black sunglasses hid her eyes. From the looks of it, Ren thought she might only be a handful of years older than him. “I heard you coming up the stairs,” she said simply.
Ren stopped in his tracks, his fingers curling into fists. “Y-You… You can’t just…”
She sighed and shook her head. “Leave this work to the police, kid.”
“Ren!” Cristal shouted from the doorway, labored breaths filling the space between her words. “What… are… you…”
The girl tilted her head as she regarded Cristal. She tapped the rim of her sunglasses. Ren thought he heard the purr of a zooming lens as she did so.
“Who’s this, your girlfriend?”
Tingles scurried down Ren’s neck and his stomach felt like jelly as he flailed his arms in the air. “SHE IS NOT MY GIRLFRIEND, SHE’S MY SISTER!”
“Heh. Like it matt… ers…” Her voice trailed off. She looked back and forth between Cristal and Ren, her jaw falling an inch. “Interesting…”
“Please excuse my brother,” Cristal said, appearing at Ren’s side. She wrapped her fingers around his shoulders and started pulling him backward. “We’ll just get out of your way and we can forget this ever happened.”
Ren shook her off. “Cristal, look! What’s she got in her hands?”
The girl’s fingers tightly clutched a black pouch. Whatever was inside the pouch wasn’t terribly large—maybe slightly smaller than a Poké Ball. She stuffed it into her pocket, her lips pressing into a grin.
“You should listen to your sister, kid,” she said. “It’s really none of your—”
“Vulpix, use Ice Shard!”
Vulpix leaped in the air, its mouth open, a dozen shards of ice soaring out its throat like bullets from a gun.
The girl was quick. She jumped to the side, narrowly escaping Vulpix’s attack while spinning in the air and releasing a Pokémon of her own.
A Toucannon appeared before them, its sharp curved beak pointed at Vulpix, its blue eyes glinting in the dark lighting.
“Hyper Voice!” the girl shouted.
“Vulpix, no!” Ren dropped over Vulpix, his arms shielding her as the Toucannon let out a shrill and piercing shriek.
The sound waves hit Ren like a typhoon, his ears popping, a jolt of pain racing through his heart. He felt Vulpix shudder against his chest.
The world seemed to explode around him. The glass windows broke into pieces and before Ren could stand back on his feet, he saw Toucannon’s talons curling over the girl’s hand.
“You’re way out of your league, kid,” the girl said as Toucannon dragged her out the window and then carried her through the air.
Ren gritted his teeth as she disappeared into the night. He looked down at Vulpix. “You okay, Vulpix?”
“Vul…” Vulpix nodded weakly.
Cristal rushed toward Ren and pulled him up. “What were you thinking?”
A commotion rang from the stairway. Ren turned to see Professor Seb and a team of researchers sprinting toward them.
“What’s happened here?” Seb shouted, her voice strained.
“It was a girl,” Ren started as he regained his balance. “She was dressed in all black, wearing sunglasses. She had something in a pouch.”
The complexion of Seb’s face turned chalky at his words. She scurried toward the platform and pulled out her PokéPad, tapping away furiously at the screen. She looked back and forth between the screen and the platform, but…
“Nothing’s happening,” she said finally. “Nothing’s showing up. It’s gone.” She brushed her fingers against the platform and shook her head.
“What did she take, professor?” Cristal asked.
There was a long pause before Seb spoke. “I think it’s best you get back to bed. In the meantime, we need to call the police.”
She pushed her hand against the door and it slid open, revealing the dimly lit office. The only source of light came from the moon’s silver rays through the window. A desk sat at the end of the room, and from the low lighting she made out the silhouette of a man, his head bent over a stack of papers. He looked up, his face drenched in shadow.
“And?” His voice drifted across the room, soft and silky, almost dream-like. “Were you successful?”
“Of course,” she said. She removed her sunglasses as she walked toward the desk. She pulled the pouch from her pocket and dropped it in his outstretched palm.
“Excellent,” he said, examining the pouch. “That keeps us right on sched—”
“But there’s a problem,” she said quickly. “They saw me, got a good look and everything.”
He paused for a moment. “Who saw you, exactly?” The coolness of his voice was disconcerting. That was the scariest thing about him. His anger was polite, far too controlled.
“Their names are Cristal and Ren. Twins. I think… I think they’re Hideo’s children.”
A hoarse chuckle escaped his lips and her heart skipped a beat. That hadn’t been the response she was expecting.
“Registering for the Championships, no doubt,” he replied. “You realize this opens a very important opportunity for us, don’t you?”
“If it’s true that they’re Hideo’s children, then their return to Ouranos gives us a sharp advantage. We’ll need to keep a close eye on them. We’ll need to send in our best.”
“Yes, sir.” She bit her lower lip.
“Good, good.” He grinned. “Then let’s begin.”